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Consumption did not usually kill one quickly (good news for the devout Christian who wanted to be prepared for death); it did not scar one’s body; it was relatively painless because the lungs have less nerves than other areas of the body; it did not Fashionable Melancholy 37 tend to result in mental illness. In fact, consumption had a number of symptomatological features that could be – and were – regarded in a positive light: the wasting of the body could be seen as a holy rejection of the world and the flesh or a sign of refined nerves and female beauty; the alternating hectic flush and pallor of the cheeks could also be seen in terms of classical female beauty; because sufferers were often unaware of the severity of their condition the term ‘spes phthisica’ or ‘hope of the consumptive’ was coined to describe the continuing creativity or feverish inspiration of the consumptive up until the point of death.

In our modern, popular picture of depression we have almost no room for this hallucinatory or visionary Fashionable Melancholy 31 aspect of melancholy, yet it is fundamental to the Ancient Greek conceptualization of the disease because of the humoral theory of black bile (μ´ελαωα χ oλη) ´ from which the word melancholy proceeds. 22 Indeed, it is this hallucinatory aspect that appears to be the basis of the famous association of genius with melancholy, the core quality that drove the fashionability of melancholy and its cognates.

By delving into that variety across a range of discourses, from medicine and philosophy through the arts and personal reminiscence, this volume aims to deepen our understanding of what melancholy involves and make us aware of just how much suffering and personal torment it can bring to those caught up in its toils – whether in the eighteenth century or our own more medically sophisticated day. Neither is this just a case of asking us to be more sympathetic to the plight of some unfortunate others: there is a personal dimension too.

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